Better stories for Smarter Cities: three trends in urbanism that will reshape our world

(Stories of Mumbai: an exploration of Mumbai’s history of urban development, and its prospects for the future, using storytelling and puppetshows, by the BMW Guggenheim Lab)

Towards the end of last year, it became clearer how cities could take practical steps to position themselves to transform to meet the increasing economic, environmental and social challenges facing them; and to seek investment to support those transformations, as I described in “Smart Ideas for Everyday Cities“.

Equally important as those practical approaches to organisation, though, are the conceptual tools that will shape those transformations. Across fields as diverse as psychology, town planning, mathematics, construction, service-design and technology, some striking common themes have emerged that are shaping those tools.

Those themes imply that we will need to take radically different approaches to city systems driven by the astonishing, exciting and sometimes disturbing changes that we’re likely to see taking place increasingly rapidly in our world over the next decade.

To adopt the terminology of Irene Ng, a Researcher in new economic models and service science at the University of Warwick, these changes will create both “needs-led” and “capability-led” drivers to do things differently.

“Needs-led” changes will be driven by the massive growth taking place in the global middle class as economies across the world modernise. The impacts will be varied and widespread, including increasing business competition in a single, integrated economy; increasing competition for resources such as food, water and energy; and increasing fragility in the systems that supply those resources to a population that is ever more concentrated in cities. We are already seeing these effects in our everyday lives: many of us are paying more for our food as a proportion of our income than a few years ago.

At a recent lecture on behalf of the International Federation for Housing and Planning and the Association of European Schools of Planning, Sir Peter Hall, Professor of Planning and Regeneration at the Bartlett School of Planning, spoke of the importance of making the growth of cities sustainable through the careful design of the transport systems that support them. In the industrial revolution, as Edward Glaeser described in Triumph of the City, cities grew up around lifts powered by steam engines; Sir Peter described how more recently they have grown outwards into suburbs populated with middle-class car-owners who habitually drive to work, schools, shops, gyms and parks.

This lifestyle simply cannot be sustained – in the developed world or in emerging economies – across such an explosively growing number of people who have the immediate wealth to afford it, but who are not paying the full price of the resources it consumes. According to the exhibition in Siemens’ “Crystal” building, where Sir Peter’s lecture was held, today’s middle class is consuming resources at one-and-a-half times the rate the world creates them; unless something changes, the rate of growth of that lifestyle will hurl us towards a global catastrophe.

So, as the Collective Research Initiatives Trust (CRIT) observed in their study of the ongoing evolution of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, the structure of movement and the economy will have to change.

(Siemens’ Crystal building in London, a show case for sustainable technology in cities, photographed by Martin Deutsch)

Meanwhile, the evolution of technology is creating incredible new opportunities for “capability-led” change.

In the last two decades, we have seen the world revolutionised by information and communication technologies such as the internet and SmartPhones; but this is only the very start of a transformation that is still gathering pace. Whilst so far these technologies have created an explosion in the availability of information, recent advances in touch-screen technology and speech recognition are just starting to demonstrate that the boundary between the information world and physical, biological and neural systems is starting to disappear.

For example, a paralysed woman recently controlled a robotic arm by thought; and prosthetic limbs, a working gun and living biological structures such as muscle fibre and skin are just some of the things that can be 3D printed on demand from raw materials and digital designs.

What changes to our urban systems will these developments – and the ones that follow them – lead to?

Following the decline of industries such as manufacturing, resource-mining and ship-building,  many post-industrial cities in the developed world are rebuilding their economies around sectors with growth potential, such as environmental technology and creative media. They are also working with the education system to provide their citizens with access to the skills those sectors require.

Supplying the skills that today’s economy needs can be a challenge. Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt lambasted the British Education system last year for producing insufficient computer programming skills; and a cross-industry report, “Engineering the Future“, laid out the need for increased focus on environmental, manufacturing, technology and engineering skills to support future economic growth in the UK. As the rate of change in science and technology increases, the skills required in a consequently changing economy will also change more rapidly; providing those skills will be an even bigger challenge.

Or will it? How much of a leap forward is required from the technologies I’ve just described, to imagining that by 2030, people will respond to the need for changing skills in the market by downloading expertise Matrix-style to exploit new employment opportunities?

Most predictions of the future turn out to be wrong, and I’m sure that this one will be, in part or in whole. But as an indication of the magnitude of changes we can expect across technology, business, society and our own physical and mental behaviour I expect it will be representative.

Our challenge is to understand how these needs-led and capability-led transformations can collectively create a world that is sustainable; and that is sympathetic to us as human beings and communities. That challenge will be most acute where both needs and capabilities are most concentrated – in cities. And across economics, architecture, technology and human behaviour, three trends in urban thinking have emerged – or, at least, become more prominent – in recent years that provide guiding principles for how we might meet that challenge.

The attraction of opposites, part 1: producer and consumer

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(Photograph of 3D printers by Rob Boudon)

In the Web 2.0 era (roughly 2003-2009), the middle classes of the developed world became connected by “always-on” broadband connections, turning these hundreds of millions of information-consumers into information-producers. That is why in 2007 (and every year since) more new information was created than in all of the previous 5 millenia. Industries such as publishing, music and telecommunications have been utterly transformed as a result.

The disappearance of the boundary between  information, physical and biological systems, and the explosive growth in the population with access to the technologies responsible for that disappearance, will transform every economic and social structure we can imagine through the same producer / consumer revolution.

We can already produce as well as consume transport resources by participating in car-sharing schemes; and energy by exploiting domestic solar power and bio-energy. The falling cost and increasing sophistication of 3D printers are just starting to make it feasible to manufacture some products in the home, particularly in specialist areas such as railway modelling; and platforms such as the Amazon Turk and Slivers of Time can quickly connect producers and consumers in the service industries.

Business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketplaces such as Big Barn and Sustaination provide the same service in local food systems. And the transport industry is evolving to serve these new markets: for instance, Shutl provide a marketplace for home delivery services through a community of independent couriers; and a handful of cities are deploying or planning recycling systems in which individual items of waste are distributed to processing centres through pneumatically powered underground transport networks.

Of course, from the earliest development of farming in human culture, we have all been both producers and consumers in a diversified economy. What’s new is the opportunity for technology to dramatically improve the flexibility, timeliness and efficiency of the value-chains that connect those two roles. Car-sharing not only reduces the amount of fuel used by our journeys; it could reduce the resources consumed by manufacturing vehicles that spend the majority of their lives stationary on drives or in car parks. Markets that more efficiently connect food production, processing and consumption could reduce the thousands of miles that food currently travels between farm and fork, often crossing its own path several times; they could create employment opportunities in small-scale food processing; not to mention reducing the vast quantity of food that is produced but not eaten, and goes to waste.

Irene Ng explores these themes wonderfully in her new book, “Value and Worth: Creating New Markets in the Digital Economy“; they offer us exciting opportunities for economic and social growth, and an evolution towards a more sustainable urban future – if we can harness them in that way.

The attraction of opposites, part 2: little and big

Some infrastructures can be “blunt” instruments: from roads and railway lines which connect their destinations but which cut apart the communities they pass through; to open data platforms which provide vast quantities of data “as-is” but little in the way of information and services customised to the needs of local individuals and communities.

Architects such as Jan Gehl have argued that the design process for cities should concentrate on the life between buildings, rather than on the structure of buildings; and that cities should be constructed at a “human-scale” – medium-sized buildings, not tower-blocks and sky-scrapers; and streets that are walkable and cycle-able, not dominated by cars. In transport, elevated cycleways and pedestrian roundabouts have appeared in Europe and Asia. These structures prevent road traffic infrastructures form impeding the fluid movement of cycling and walking – transport modes which allow people to stop and interact in a city more easily and often than driving.

At a meeting held in London last year to establish the UK’s chapter to the City Protocol Society, Keith Coleman of Capgemini offered a different view by comparing the growth in size of cities to the structure of the world’s largest biological organisms. In particular, Keith contrasted the need to provide infrastructure – such as the Pando forest in Utah, a single, long-lived and vastly extensive root system supporting millions of individual trees that live, grow and die independently – with the need to provide capabilities – such as those encoded in the genes of the Neptune sea grass, which is not a single organism, but rather a genetically identical colony which collectively covers 5% of the Mediterranean sea floor.

The Collective Research Initiatives Trust‘s study of Mumbai, “Being Nicely Messy“, Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s “Collage City“, Manu Fernandez’s “Human Scale Cities” project and CHORA’s Taiwan Strait Atlas project have all suggested an approach to urban systems that is more like the Neptune sea grass than the Pando forest: the provision of a “toolkit” for individuals and organisations to apply in their local context

My own work, initially in Sunderland, was similarly informed by the Knight Foundation’s report on the Information Needs of Communities, to which I was introduced by Conn Crawford of Sunderland City Council. It counsels for a process of engagement and understanding between city institutions and communities, in order that the resources of large organisations can be focused on providing the information and services that can be most effectively used by individual citizens, businesses and social organisations.

(The Bristol Pound, a local currency intended to encourage and reinforce local trading synergies.)

Kelvin Campbell of Urban Initiatives has perhaps taken this thinking furthest in the urban context in his concept of “Massive Small” and the “urban operating system”. Similar thinking appears throughout research on resilience in systems such as cities, coral reefs, terrorist networks and financial systems, as described by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back“. And it is reflected in the work that many researchers and professionals across fields as diverse as city planning, economics and technology are doing to understand how institutional city systems can engage effectively with “informal” activity in the economy.

In IBM we have adapted our approach too. To take one example, a few years ago we launched our “Global Entrepreneur” programme, through which we engage directly with small, startup businesses using technology to develop what we call “Smarter Planet” and “Smarter Cities” solutions. These businesses are innovating in specific markets that they understand much better than we do; using operating models that IBM does not have. In turn, IBM’s resources can help them build more resilient solutions more quickly and cost-effectively, and reach a wider set of potential customers across the world.

A civic infrastructure that combines economics and technology and that, whilst it has a long history,  is starting to evolve rapidly, is the local currency. Last year Bristol became the fifth place in the UK to launch its own currency; whilst in Switzerland an alternative currency, the Wir, is thought to have contributed to the stability of the Swiss economy for the last century by providing an alternative, more flexible basis for debt, by allowing repayments to made in kind through bartering, as well as in currency.

Such systems can promote local economic synergy, and enable the benefits of capital fluidity to be adapted to the needs of local contexts. And from innovations in mobile banking in Africa to Birmingham’s DropletPay SmartPhone payment system, they are rapidly exploiting new technologies. They are a clear example of a service that city and economic institutions can support; and that can be harnessed and used by individuals and organisations anywhere in a city ecosystem for the purposes that are most important and valuable to them.

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(The Co-operative Society building at Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings)

Co-operative Governance

It’s increasingly obvious that on their own, traditional businesses and public and civic institutions won’t deliver the transformations that our cities, and our planet, need. The restructuring of our economy, cities and society to address the environmental and demographic challenges we face requires that social, environmental and long term economic goals drive our decisions, rather than short term financial returns alone.

Alternatives have been called for and proposed. In her speech ahead of the Rio +20 Summit, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, said that one of the challenges for achieving a sustainable, equitably distributed return to growth following the recent economic challenges was that “externalities” such as social and environmental impacts are not currently included in the prices of goods and services.

I participated last year in a panel discussion at the World Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” conference which asked whether including those costs would incent consumers to chose to purchase sustainably provided goods and services. We examined several ways to create positive and negative incentives through pricing; but also examples of simply “removing the barriers” to making such choices. Our conclusion was that a combination of approaches was needed, including new ideas from game theory and technology, such as “open data”; and that evidence exists from a variety of examples to prove that consumer behaviour can and does adapt in response to well designed systems.

In “Co-op Capitalism“, Noreena Hertz proposed an alternative approach to enterprise based on social principles, where the objectives of collective endeavours are to return broad value to all of their stakeholders rather than to pay dividends to financial investors. This approach has a vital role in enabling communities across the entirety of city ecosystems to harness and benefit from technology in a sustainable way, and is exemplified by innovations such as MyDex in personal information management, Carbon Voyage in transport, and Eco-Island in energy.

New forms of cooperation have also emerged from resilience research, such as “constellations” and “articulations”. All of these approaches have important roles to play in specific city systems, community initiatives and new businesses, where they successfully create synergies between the financial, social and economic capabilities and needs of the participants involved.

But none of them directly address the need for cities to create a sustainable, cohesive drive towards a sustainable, equitable, successful future.

(Photo by Greg Marshall of the rocks known as “The Needles” just off the coast of the Isle of Wight; illustrating the potential for the island to exploit wave and tidal energy sources through the Eco-Island initiative)

In “Smart Ideas for Everyday Cities“, I described an approach that seems to be emerging from the cities that have made the most progress so far. It involves bringing together stakeholders across city systems – representatives of communities; city institutions; owners and operators of city systems and assets such as buildings, transportation and utilities; Universities and schools; and so on – into a group that can not only agree a vision and priorities for the city’s future; but that is empowered to take collective decisions accordingly.

The initiatives agreed by such a group will require individual “special purpose vehicles” (SPVs) to be created according to the specific set of stakeholder interests involved in each case – such as public/private partnerships to build infrastructure or Community Interest Companies and Energy Service Companies to operate local energy schemes. (There are some negative connotations associated with SPVs, which have been used in some cases by private organisations seeking to hide their debt or ownership; but in the Smarter Cities context they are frequently associated with more positive purposes).

Most importantly, though: where a series of such schemes and commercial ventures are initiated by a stable collaboration within a city, investors will see a reliable decision-making process and a mature understanding of shared risk and its management; making each individual initiative more likely to attract investment.

In his analysis of societal responses to critical environmental threats, Jared Diamond noted in his 2005 book “Collapse” that successful responses often emerge when choices are taken by leaders with long-term vested interests, working closely with their communities. In a modern economy, the interests of stakeholders are driven by many timescales – electoral cycles, business cycles, the presence of commuters, travellers and the transient and long-term residents of the city, for example. Bringing those stakeholders together can create a forum that transcends individual timescales, creating stability and the opportunity for a long-term outlook.

A challenge for 2013: better stories for Smarter Cities

Some cities are seizing the agenda for change that I have described in this article; and the very many of us across countries, professions and disciplines who are exploring that agenda are passionate about helping them to do so successfully.

In their report “Cities Outlook 1901“, Centre for Cities explored the previous century of urban development in the UK, examining why at various times some cities thrived and some did not. They concluded that actions taken by cities in areas such as planning, policy, skills development and economic strategy could have significant effects on their economic and social prosperity relative to others.

The need for cities to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the future using the old, new and evolving tools at their disposal is urgent. In the 20th Century, some cities suffered a gradual decline as they failed to respond successfully to the changes of their age. In the 21st Century those changes will be so striking, and take place so quickly, that failing to meet them could result in a decline that is catastrophic.

But there is a real impediment to our ability to apply these ideas in cities today: a lack of common understanding.

(Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch, Birmingham’s three fathers of the Industrial Revolution, photographed by Neil Howard)

As the industrial and information revolutions have led our world to develop at a faster and faster pace, human knowledge has not just grown dramatically; it has fragmented to an extraordinary extent.

Consequently, across disciplines such as architecture, economics, social science, psychology, technology and all the many other fields important to the behaviour of cities, a vast and confusing array of language and terminology is used – a Tower of Babel, no less. The leaders of many city institutions and businesses are understandably not familiar with what they can easily perceive as jargon; and new ideas that appear to be presented in jargon are unlikely to be trusted.

To address the challenge, those of us who believe in these new approaches to city systems need to tell better stories about them; stories about individuals and their lives in the places where they live and work; how they will be more healthy, better equiped to support themselves, and able to move around freely in a pleasant urban environment.

Professor Miles Tight at the University of Birmingham and his colleagues in the “Visions 2030” project have applied this idea to the description of future scenarios for transportation in cities. They have created a series of visually appealing animated depictions of everyday scenes in city streets and places that could be the result of the various forces affecting the development of transport over the next 20 years. Malcolm Allan, a colleague in the Academy of Urbanism, helps cities to tell “stories about place” as a tool for envisaging their future development in a way that people can understand and identify with. And my colleagues in IBM Research have been exploring more generally how storytelling can enable the exchange of knowledge in situations where collaborative creativity is required across multiple domains of specialisation.

If we can bring our knowledge of emerging technologies and new approaches to urbanism into conversations about specific places in the form of stories, we will build trust and understanding in those places, as well as envisioning their possible futures. And that will give us a real chance of achieving the visions we create. This is what I’ll be concentrating on doing in 2013; and it looks like being an exciting year.

(It’s been much longer than usual since I last wrote an article for this blog; following an extended break over Christmas and the New Year, I’ve had a very busy start to 2013. I hope to resume my usual frequency of writing for the rest of the year.

And finally, an apology: in my remarks on the panel discussion following Sir Peter Hall’s lecture at the Crystal, I gave a very brief summary of some of the ideas described in this article. In particular, I used the term “Massive / Small” without attributing it to Kelvin Campbell and Urban Initiatives. My apologies to Kelvin, whose work and influence on my thinking I hope I have now acknowledged properly).

The six steps to a Smarter City; and the philosophical imperative for taking them (updated 9th January 2013)

Eastside City Park

(Birmingham’s new Eastside City Park, opened late last year as a public space and walking route, adjacent to Millennium Point and the new Birmingham City University campus)

(This article originally appeared in September 2012 as “Five steps to a Smarter City: and the philosophical imperative for taking them“. Because it contains an overall framework for approaching Smart City transformations, I’ll keep it updated to reflect the latest content on this blog, and ongoing developments in the industry. It can also be accessed through the page link “Six steps to a Smarter City” in the navigation bar above). 

In recent weeks I have valued open and frank discussions between city leaders, financiers and developers, policy makers, academics, architects, planners – and even some technologists. They have revealed simple ideas that are common to those cities that are successfully implementing transformations across city systems to achieve city-wide outcomes.

I have also explored, in more philosophical articles that are largely categorised in the “Urbanism” section of this blog, the need for cities to encourage “messy”, “informal”, “organic” and “bottom-up” forms of innovation in hyperlocal contexts within cities. To do so requires a new openness and willingness to engage between city institutions and communities.

I’ve updated this article to accommodate those topics; I believe they are vital to creating and sustaining the meaningful changes that we increasingly recognise our cities need.

  1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you
  2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision; and establish governance and a credible decision-making process (Updated)
  3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise (Updated)
  4. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision (Updated)
  5. Put the financing in place (Updated)
  6. Think beyond the future and engage with informality: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process (Updated) … and a philosophical imperative for doing so

1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you

Many urbanists and cities have grappled with how to define what a “Smart City”, a “Smarter City” or a “Future City” might be. It’s important for cities to agree to use an appropriate definition because it sets the scope and focus for what will be a complex collective journey of transformation.

In his article “The Top 10 Smart Cities On The Planet“, Boyd Cohen of Fast Company defined a Smart City as follows:

“Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint–all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”

This definition shares a useful distinction that was made to me by the Technology Strategy Board‘s Head of Sustainability, Richard Miller: a “Smart City” is one that transforms itself into a “Future City” by using technology. In IBM we use the phrase “Smarter City” to describe a city that is making progress on that path.

As is frequently quoted, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas; and in the UK where I live, that’s true of more than 90% of us. So its not surprising that so many people have strong views on what Smart, Smarter and Future Cities should be.

Personally I think that a useful and holistic definition of a “Future City” needs to include the following concepts:

  • A Future City is in a position to make a success of the present: for example, it is economically active in high-value industry sectors and able to provide the workforce and infrastructure that companies in those sectors need.
  • A Future City is on course for a successful future: with an education system that provides the skills that will be needed by future industries as technology evolves.
  • A Future City creates sustainable, equitably distributed growth: where education and employment opportunities are widely available to all citizens and communities, and with a focus on delivering social and environmental outcomes as well as economic growth.
  • A Future City operates as efficiently & intelligently as possible: so that resources such as energy, transportation systems and water are used optimally, providing a low-cost, low-carbon basis for economic and social growth, and an attractive, healthy environment in which to live and work.
  • A Future City enables citizens, communities, entrepreneurs & businesses to do their best; because making infrastructures Smarter is an engineering challenge; but making cities Smarter is a societal challenge; and those best placed to understand how societies can change are those who can innovate within them.

If those objectives provide – an admittedly very generic – view of what a “Future City” is, then a “Smarter City” is one that uses technology to accomplish them.

Creating a more specific vision is a task for each city to undertake for itself, taking into account its unique character, strengths and challenges. This process usually entails a collaborative act of creativity by city stakeholders.

2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision

For a city to agree a shared “Smarter City” vision involves bringing an unusual set of stakeholders together in a single forum: political leaders, community leaders, major employers, transport and utility providers, entrepreneurs and SMEs, universities and faith groups, for example. The task for these stakeholders is to agree a vision that is compelling, inclusive; and specific enough to drive the creation of a roadmap of individual projects and initiatives to move the city forward.

This is a process that I’m proud to be taking part in in Birmingham through the City’s Smart City Commission, whose vision for the city was published in December. I discussed how such processes can work, and some of the challenges and activities involved, in July 2012 in an article entitled “How Smarter Cities Get Started“.

To attract the various forms of investment that are required to support a programme of “Smart” initiatives, these stakeholder groups need to be decision-making entities, such as Manchester’s “New Economy” Commission, not discussion forums.  They need to take investment decisions together in the interest of shared objectives; and they need a mature understanding and agreement of how risk is shared and managed across those investments.

Whatever specific form a local partnership takes, it needs to demonstrate transparency and consistency in its decision-making and risk management, in order that its initiatives and proposals are attractive to investors. These characteristics are straightforward in themselves; but take time to establish amongst a new group of stakeholders taking a new, collaborative approach to the management of a programme of transformation.

The article “Smart ideas for everyday cities” from December 2012 discusses these challenges, and examples of groups that have addressed them, in more detail.

3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise

Any holistic approach to a Smarter City needs to recognise the immensely complex context that a city represents: a rich “system of systems” comprising the physical environment, economy, transport and utility systems, communities, education and many other services, systems and human activities.

In “The new architecture of Smart Cities” in September 2012 I laid out a framework  for thinking about that context; in particular highlighting the need to focus on the “soft infrastructure” of conversations, trust, relationships and engagement between people, communities, enterprises and institutions that is fundamental to establishing a consensual view of the future of a city.

In that article  I also asserted that whilst in Smarter Cities we are often concerned with the application of technology to city systems, the context in which we do so – i.e. our understanding of the city as a whole – is the same context as that in which other urban professionals operate: architects, town planners and policy-makers, for example. An implication is that when looking for expertise to inform an approach to “Smarter Cities”, we should look broadly across the field of urbanism, and not restrict ourselves to that material which pertains specifically to the application of technology to cities.

So whilst  “City Protocol” seems to be the strongest emerging initiative to determine frameworks and standards for approaching Smarter Cities – and certainly should be considered by any city starting on that path – there are other resources that can be drawn on. The UK is establishing one of three local charters to the society.

UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements, recently published its “State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013” report. UNHABITAT promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, and their reports and statistics on urbanisation are frequently cited as authoritative. Their 2012/2013 report includes extensive consultation with cities around the world, and proposes a number of new mechanisms intended to assist decision-makers. It focuses extensively on South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East; but also considers a number of European and North American examples.

(The components of a Smart City architecture I described in “The new architecture of Smart Cities“)

The World Bank’s Urban Development page contains a number of reports covering many aspects of urbanisation relevant to Smarter Cities, such as “Transforming Cities with Transit”, “Urban Risk Assessments: Towards a Common Approach” and a forthcoming report in December to promote “sustainable urban development through cross-sector integration by focusing on the careful coordination of transit and land development”. At the Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” symposium in Barcelona in October, they also announced that they would be publishing a book of the same title containing a set of viewpoints on similar themes.

The Academy of Urbanism, a UK-based not-for-profit association of several hundred urbanists including policy-makers, architects, planners and academics, publishes the “Friebrug Charter for Sustainable Urbanism” in collaboration with the city of Frieburg, Germany. Frieburg won the Academy’s European City of the Year award in 2010 but its history of recognition as a sustainable city goes back further. The charter contains a number of useful principles and ideas for achieving consensual sustainability that can be applied to Smarter Cities.

A number of current research programmes are seeking to define more technical standards for achieving the interoperability between city systems that underpins many Smarter City ideas. Imperial College in the UK have established the Digital City Exchange initiative; Imperial have a depth of expertise across urban systems such as transport and energy, and are working with a number of academic and industry partners.

The European Union Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC) project is similarly researching  architectures and standards for Smart Cities technology infrastructure – my colleagues in IBM and at Birmingham City University are amongst the participants. And the “FI-WARE” project, also funded by the European Union, is researching architectures and standards for a “future internet platform”: one of its focusses is the integration of city systems, and particularly how cities can provide technology infrastructures on which SMEs and entrepreneurs can base innovative new city services.

With the UK Technology Strategy Board continuing to invest through it’s “Future Cities” programme (link requires registration) and the EU announcing new investments in Smart Cities recently, research activity in this area will surely grow.

Consultancies, technology and service providers also offer useful views. IBM’s own perspectives and case studies can be found at http://www.ibm.com/smartercities/Arup have published a number of viewpoints, including “Information Marketplaces: the new economics of cities“; and McKinsey’s recent report “Government designed for new times: a global conversation” contains a number of sections dedicated to technology and Smarter Cities.

The large number of “Smart Cities” and “Future Cities” communities on the web can also be good sources of emerging new knowledge, such as UBM’s “Future Cities” site; the Sustainable Cities Collective; and Linked-In discussion Groups such as “Smart Cities and City 2.0“, “Smarter Cities” and “Smart Urbanism“.

Finally, I published an extensive article on this blog in December 2012 which provided a framework for identifying the technology components required to support Smart City initiatives of different kinds – “Pens, paper and conversations. And the other technologies that will make cities smarter“; and I specifically discussed the challenges and technologies associated with the city information and “open data” platforms that underlie many of those initiatives in “Why open city data is the brownfield regeneration challenge of the information age” in October 2012.

(The discussion group at #SmartHack in Birmingham, described in “Tea, trust and hacking – how Birmingham is getting Smarter“, photographed by Sebastian Lenton)

4. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision

In order to fulfill a vision for a Smarter City, a roadmap of specific projects and initiatives is needed, including both early “quick wins” and longer term strategic programmes.

Those projects and initiatives take many forms; and it can be worthwhile to concentrate initial effort on those that are simplest to execute because they are within the remit of a single organisation; or because they build on cross-organisational initiatives within cities that are already underway.

In my August 2012 article “Five roads to a Smarter City” I gave some ideas of what those initiatives might be, and the factors affecting their viability and timing, including:

  1. Top-down, strategic transformations across city systems;
  2. Optimisation of individual infrastructures such as energy, water and transportation;
  3. Applying “Smarter” approaches to “micro-city” environments such as industrial parks, transport hubs, university campuses or leisure complexes;
  4. Exploiting the technology platforms emerging from the cost-driven transformation to shared services in public sector;
  5. Supporting the “Open Data” movement.

In “Pens, paper and conversations. And the other technologies that will make cities smarter” in December 2012, I described a framework for identifying the technology components required to support Smart City initiatives of different kinds, such as:

  1. Re-engineering the physical components of city systems (to improve their efficiency)
  2. Using information  to optimise the operation of city systems
  3. Co-ordinating the behaviour of multiple systems to contribute to city-wide outcomes
  4. Creating new marketplaces to encourage sustainable choices, and attract investment

It is also worthwhile to engage with service and technology providers in the Smart City space; they have knowledge of projects and initiatives with which they have been involved elsewhere. Many are also seeking suitable locations in which to invest in pilot schemes to develop or prove new offerings which, if successful, can generate follow-on sales elsewhere. The “First of a Kind” programme in IBM’s Research division is one example or a formal programme that is operated for this purpose.

A roadmap consisting of several such individual activities within the context of a set of cross-city goals, and co-ordinated by a forum of cross-city stakeholders, can form a powerful programme for making cities Smarter.

5. Put the financing in place

A crucial factor in assessing the viability of those activities, and then executing them, is putting in place the required financing. In many cases, that will involve cities approaching investors or funding agencies. In “Smart ideas for everyday cities” in December 2012 I described some of the organisations from whom funds could be secured; and some of the characteristics they are looking for when considering which cities and initiatives to invest in.

There are very many individual ways in which funds can be secured for Smart City initiatives, of course; I described some more in “No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter” in November 2012, and several others in two articles in September 2012:

In “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part one)“:

And in “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part two):

I’m a technologist, not a financier or economist; so those articles are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. But they do suggest a number of practical options that can be explored.

(Meeting with social entrepreneurs in Sunderland who create local innovations in the city)

6. Think beyond the future and engage with informality: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process

Once a city has become “Smart”, is that the end of the story?

I don’t think so. The really Smart city is one that has put in place soft and hard infrastructures that can be used in a continuous process of reinvention and creativity.

In the same way that a well designed urban highway should connect rather than divide the city communities it passes through, the new technology platforms put in place to support Smarter City initiatives should be made open to communities and entrepreneurs to constantly innovate in their own local context.

I described that process along with some examples of it in “The amazing heart of a Smarter City: the innovation boundary” in August 2012. In October 2012, I described some of the ways in which Birmingham’s communities are exploring that boundary in “Tea, trust and hacking: how Birmingham is getting smarter“; and in November I emphasised in “Zen and the art of messy urbanism” the importance of recognising the organic, informal nature of some of the innovation and activity within cities that creates value.

When it works well, the result is the ongoing creation of new products, services or even marketplaces that enable city residents and visitors to make choices every day that reinforce local values and synergies. I described some of the ways in which technology could enable those markets to be designed to encourage transactions that support local outcomes in “Open urbanism: why the information economy will lead to sustainable cities” in October 2012 and “From Christmas lights to bio-energy: how technology will change our sense of place” in August 2012. The money-flows within those markets can be used as the basis of financing their infrastructure, as I discussed in “Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making” in June 2o12 and in several other articles described in “5. Put the financing in place” above.

(Artist’s impression of a vertical urban farm shared by Curbed SF)

A philosophical imperative

It’s worth at this point reminding ourselves why we’re compelled to make cities Smarter. I’ve often referred to the pressing economic and environmental pressures we’re all aware of as the reasons to act; but they are really only the acute symptoms of an underlying demographic trend and its effect on the behaviour of complex systems within cities.

The world’s population is expected to grow towards 10 billion in 2070; and most of that growth will be within cities. The physicist and biologist Geoffrey West’s work on cities as complex systems showed that larger, denser cities are more successful in creating wealth. That creation of wealth attracts more residents, causing further growth – and further consumption of resources. At some point it’s inevitable that this self-reinforcing growth triggers a crisis.

If this sounds alarmist, consider the level of civic unrest associated with the Eurozone crisis in Greece and Spain; or that in the 2000 strike by the drivers who deliver fuel to petrol stations in the UK, some city supermarkets came within hours of running out of food completely. Or simply look to the frightening global effects of recent grain shortages caused by drought in the US.

Concern over this combination of the cost of resources and uncertainty in their supply has lead to sustainability becoming a critical economic and social issue, not just a long-term environmental one. The concept of “resilience” has emerged to unify these concepts; and it demands changes in the way that cities behave.

As an example of just how far-reaching this thinking has become, consider the supply of food to urban areas. Whilst definitions vary, urban areas are usually defined as continuously built-up areas with a population of at least a few thousand people, living at a density of at least a few hundred people per square kilometer. Actual population densities in large cities are much higher than this, typically a few tens of thousands per square kilometer in developed economies, and sometimes over one hundred thousand per square kilometer in the largest megacities in emerging economies.

In contrast, one square kilometer of intensively farmed land with fertile soil in a good climate can feed approximately 1000 people according to Kate Cooper of the New Optimists forum, which is considering scenarios for Birmingham’s food future in 2050. Those numbers tell us that, then unless some radical new method of growing food appears, cities will never feed themselves, and will continue to rely on importing food from ever larger areas of farmland to support their rising populations.

(Photo by TEDxBrainport of Dr Mark Post explaining how meat can be grown artificially)

As I’ve noted before, such radical new methods are already appearing: artificial meat has been grown in laboratories; and the idea of creating “vertical farms” in skyscrapers is being seriously explored.

But these are surely scientific and engineering challenges; so why do I refer to a philosophical imperative?

I’ve previously referred to artificial meat and vertical farming as examples of “extreme urbanism“. They certainly push the boundaries of our ability to manipulate the natural world. And that’s where the philosophical challenge lies.

Do we regard ourselves as creatures of nature, or as creatures who manipulate nature? To what extent do we want to change the character of the world from which we emerged? As the population of our planet and our cities continues to rise, we will have to confront these questions, and decide how to answer them.

Geoffrey West’s work clearly predicts what will happen if we continue our current course; and I think it is likely that scientists and engineers will rise to the challenge of supporting even larger, denser cities than those we currently have. But personally I don’t think the result will be a world that I will find attractive to live in.

Organisations such as Population Matters campaign carefully and reasonably for an alternative path; an agenda of education, access to opportunity and individual restraint in the size of our families as a means to slow the growth of global population, so that more orthodox solutions can be affective – such as increasing the efficiency of food distribution, reducing food wastage (including our personal food wastage) and changing dietary habits – for instance, to eat less meat.

I don’t claim to know the answer to these challenges, but I’m thankful that they are the subject of urgent research by serious thinkers. The challenge for cities is to understand and incorporate this thinking into their own strategies in ways that are realistic and practical, in order that their Smarter City programmes represent the first steps on the path to a sustainable future.

Soft Infrastructures For Smart Cities

Birmingham’s new Library, intended to foster conversations and the exchange of knowledge and ideas..

(I’ve recently begun guest blogging at UBM’s new Future Cities site; this was the first article I posted there. It builds on themes I first explored here in the article “The new architecture of Smart Cities“).

At Birmingham’s Smart City Commission, we have been trying to answer an interesting question: What makes the difference between a “smart city” and a city where smart projects take place?

“Smart” projects will occur everywhere in time. Human history is in part the story of our continual adoption of new technologies, and technologies like sensors, actuators, smartphones, analytics, and “big-data” will eventually be adopted across city systems such as transportation, energy, planning, and social services.

But if a city seeks to exploit new technologies across its systems in a coordinated way to address overall goals for regeneration, sustainability, and social and economic growth, how can that be achieved?

Some obvious characteristics can be observed in cities that have successfully pursued this agenda: They have a clear vision, championed by city leaders, and they have invested in technology initiatives such as broadband connectivity and open data.

That’s not enough, though. The behaviour of a city is the aggregate of the activity of the hundreds of thousands or millions of people who live, work, and relax there. A city will not achieve its goals through a smart strategy unless that strategy results in changes to systems that make a difference to all of those individuals.

The challenge for architects and designers is to create infrastructures and services that can become part of the fabric of city life. This will not be achieved simply by applying concepts such as citizen-centric principles to the design of smart city services. That is necessary, but not sufficient. The more important question is: Who has the ability to apply such approaches on behalf of all of the people within a city?

(The remainder of this article can be found on UBM’s Future Cities site, as “Why Cities need Communities“).

The six steps to a Smarter City; and the philosophical imperative for taking them (updated)

(Photo of digital lights in “The Place” in Beijing by Trey Ratcliff)

(This article originally appeared in September 2012 as “Five steps to a Smarter City: and the philosophical imperative for taking them“. Because it contains an overall framework for approaching Smart City transformations, I’ll keep it updated to reflect the latest content on this blog, and ongoing developments in the industry. It can also be accessed through the page link “Six steps to a Smarter City” in the navigation bar above). 

As I remarked last week, in the past months some interesting announcements have been made concerning emerging frameworks and protocols for Smarter Cities – such as the “City Protocol” collaboration which will be formally launched at the Smart City Expo this week in Barcelona.

There are now a wide variety of established and emerging repositories of experience and practise relevant to Smart Cities in such domains as sustainability, technology, community engagement and economic development. Some are open collaborations; some are research programmes; and some are published position papers from consultancies and service providers. It therefore seems an opportune time to update the article “Five steps to a Smarter City” I wrote in September, to include a sixth step: “Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise“:

  1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you
  2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision
  3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise
  4. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision
  5. Put the financing in place
  6. Thinking beyond the future: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process … and a philosophical imperative for doing so

1. Define what a “Smarter City” means to you

Many urbanists and cities have grappled with how to define what a “Smart City”, a “Smarter City” or a “Future City” might be. It’s important for cities to agree to use an appropriate definition because it sets the scope and focus for what will be a complex collective journey of transformation.

In his article “The Top 10 Smart Cities On The Planet“, Boyd Cohen of Fast Company defined a Smart City as follows:

“Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint–all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”

This definition shares a useful distinction that was made to me by the Technology Strategy Board‘s Head of Sustainability, Richard Miller: a “Smart City” is one that transforms itself into a “Future City” by using technology. In IBM we use the phrase “Smarter City” to describe a city that is making progress on that path.

As is frequently quoted, more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas; and in the UK where I live, that’s true of more than 90% of us. So its not surprising that so many people have strong views on what Smart, Smarter and Future Cities should be.

Personally I think that a useful and holistic definition of a “Future City” needs to include the following concepts:

  • A Future City is in a position to make a success of the present: for example, it is economically active in high-value industry sectors and able to provide the workforce and infrastructure that companies in those sectors need.
  • A Future City is on course for a successful future: with an education system that provides the skills that will be needed by future industries as technology evolves.
  • A Future City creates sustainable, equitably distributed growth: where education and employment opportunities are widely available to all citizens and communities, and with a focus on delivering social and environmental outcomes as well as economic growth.
  • A Future City operates as efficiently & intelligently as possible: so that resources such as energy, transportation systems and water are used optimally, providing a low-cost, low-carbon basis for economic and social growth, and an attractive, healthy environment in which to live and work.
  • A Future City enables citizens, communities, entrepreneurs & businesses to do their best; because making infrastructures Smarter is an engineering challenge; but making cities Smarter is a societal challenge; and those best placed to understand how societies can change are those who can innovate within them.

If those objectives provide – an admittedly very generic – view of what a “Future City” is, then a “Smarter City” is one that uses technology to accomplish them.

Creating a more specific vision is a task for each city to undertake for itself, taking into account its unique character, strengths and challenges. This process usually entails a collaborative act of creativity by city stakeholders.

(The members of Birmingham’s Smart City Commission)

2. Convene a stakeholder group to create a specific Smarter City vision

For a city to agree a shared “Smarter City” vision involves bringing an unusual set of stakeholders together in a single forum: political leaders, community leaders, major employers, transport and utility providers, entrepreneurs and SMEs, universities and faith groups, for example. The task for these stakeholders is to agree a vision that is compelling, inclusive; and specific enough to drive the creation of a roadmap of individual projects and initiatives to move the city forward.

This is a process that I’m proud to be taking part in in Birmingham through the City’s Smart City Commission. I discussed how such processes can work, and some of the challenges and activities involved, back in July in an article entitled “How Smarter Cities Get Started“.

3. Structure your approach to a Smart City by drawing on the available resources of expertise

Any holistic approach to a Smarter City needs to recognise the immensely complex context that a city represents: a rich “system of systems” comprising the physical environment, economy, transport and utility systems, communities, education and many other services, systems and human activities.

In “The new architecture of Smart Cities” I laid out a framework  for thinking about that context; in particular highlighting the need to focus on the “soft infrastructure” of conversations, trust, relationships and engagement between people, communities, enterprises and institutions that is fundamental to establishing a consensual view of the future of a city.

In that article  I also asserted that whilst in Smarter Cities we are often concerned with the application of technology to city systems, the context in which we do so – i.e. our understanding of the city as a whole – is the same context as that in which other urban professionals operate: architects, town planners and policy-makers, for example. An implication is that when looking for expertise to inform an approach to “Smarter Cities”, we should look broadly across the field of urbanism, and not restrict ourselves to that material which pertains specifically to the application of technology to cities.

So whilst  “City Protocol” seems to be the strongest emerging initiative to determine frameworks and standards for approaching Smarter Cities – and certainly should be considered by any city starting on that path – there are other resources that can be drawn on.

UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements, recently published its “State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013” report. UNHABITAT promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, and their reports and statistics on urbanisation are frequently cited as authoritative. Their 2012/2013 report includes extensive consultation with cities around the world, and proposes a number of new mechanisms intended to assist decision-makers. It focuses extensively on South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East; but also considers a number of European and North American examples.

(The components of a Smart City architecture I described in “The new architecture of Smart Cities“)

The World Bank’s Urban Development page contains a number of reports covering many aspects of urbanisation relevant to Smarter Cities, such as “Transforming Cities with Transit”, “Urban Risk Assessments: Towards a Common Approach” and a forthcoming report in December to promote “sustainable urban development through cross-sector integration by focusing on the careful coordination of transit and land development”. At the Bank’s “Rethinking Cities” symposium in Barcelona in October, they also announced that they would be publishing a book of the same title containing a set of viewpoints on similar themes.

The Academy of Urbanism, a UK-based not-for-profit association of several hundred urbanists including policy-makers, architects, planners and academics, publishes the “Friebrug Charter for Sustainable Urbanism” in collaboration with the city of Frieburg, Germany. Frieburg won the Academy’s European City of the Year award in 2010 but its history of recognition as a sustainable city goes back further. The charter contains a number of useful principles and ideas for achieving consensual sustainability that can be applied to Smarter Cities.

A number of current research programmes are seeking to define more technical standards for achieving the interoperability between city systems that underpins many Smarter City ideas. Imperial College in the UK have established the Digital City Exchange initiative; Imperial have a depth of expertise across urban systems such as transport and energy, and are working with a number of academic and industry partners.

The European Union Platform for Intelligent Cities (EPIC) project is similarly researching  architectures and standards for Smart Cities technology infrastructure – my colleagues in IBM and at Birmingham City Universityare amongst the participants. Finally, the “FI-WARE” project, also funded by the European Union, is researching architectures and standards for a “future internet platform”: one of its focusses is the integration of city systems, and particularly how cities can provide technology infrastructures on which SMEs and entrepreneurs can base innovative new city services.

With the UK Technology Strategy Board continuing to invest through it’s “Future Cities” programme (link requires registration) and the EU announcing new investments in Smart Cities recently, research activity in this area will surely grow.

Consultancies, technology and service providers also offer useful views. IBM’s own perspectives and case studies can be found at http://www.ibm.com/smartercities/; Arup have published a number of viewpoints, including “Information Marketplaces: the new economics of cities“; and McKinsey’s recent report “Government designed for new times: a global conversation” contains a number of sections dedicated to technology and Smarter Cities.

Finally, the large number of “Smart Cities” and “Future Cities” communities on the web are good sources of emerging new knowledge, such as UBM’s “Future Cities” site; the Sustainable Cities Collective; and Linked-In discussion Groups such as “Smart Cities and City 2.0“, “Smarter Cities” and “Smart Urbanism“.

4. Populate a roadmap that can deliver the vision

In order to fulfill a vision for a Smarter City, a roadmap of specific projects and initiatives is needed, including both early “quick wins” and longer term strategic programmes.

Those projects and initiatives take many forms; and it can be worthwhile to concentrate initial effort on those that are simplest to execute because they are within the remit of a single organisation; or because they build on cross-organisational initiatives within cities that are already underway.

In my August article “Five roads to a Smarter City” I gave some ideas of what those initiatives might be, and the factors affecting their viability and timing, including:

  1. Top-down, strategic transformations across city systems;
  2. Optimisation of individual infrastructures such as energy, water and transportation;
  3. Applying “Smarter” approaches to “micro-city” environments such as industrial parks, transport hubs, university campuses or leisure complexes;
  4. Exploiting the technology platforms emerging from the cost-driven transformation to shared services in public sector;
  5. Supporting the “Open Data” movement.

A roadmap consisting of several such individual activities within the context of a set of cross-city goals, and co-ordinated by a forum of cross-city stakeholders, can form a powerful programme for making cities Smarter.

5. Put the financing in place

A crucial factor in assessing the viability of those activities, and then executing them, is putting in place the required financing. There are many ways in which that can be done, and I described several of them in two articles in September:

In “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part one)“:

And in “Ten ways to pay for a Smarter City (part two):

I’m a technologist, not a financier or economist; so those articles are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. But they do suggest a number of practical options that can be explored.

(Meeting with social entrepreneurs in Sunderland who create local innovations in the city)

6. Thinking beyond the future: how to make “Smarter” a self-sustaining process

Once a city has become “Smart”, is that the end of the story?

I don’t think so. The really Smart city is one that has put in place soft and hard infrastructures that can be used in a continuous process of reinvention and creativity.

In the same way that a well designed urban highway should connect rather than divide the city communities it passes through, the new technology platforms put in place to support Smarter City initiatives should be made open to communities and entrepreneurs to constantly innovate in their own local context. I described that process along with some examples of it in “The amazing heart of a Smarter City: the innovation boundary“.

When it works well, the result is the ongoing creation of new products, services or even marketplaces that enable city residents and visitors to make choices every day that reinforce local values and synergies. I described some of the ways in which technology could enable those markets to be designed to encourage transactions that support local outcomes in “From Christmas lights to bio-energy: how technology will change our sense of place“. And the money-flows within those markets can be used as the basis of financing their infrastructure, as I discussed in “Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making“.

(Artist’s impression of a vertical urban farm shared by Curbed SF)

A philosophical imperative

It’s worth at this point reminding ourselves why we’re compelled to make cities Smarter. I’ve often referred to the pressing economic and environmental pressures we’re all aware of as the reasons to act; but they are really only the acute symptoms of an underlying demographic trend and its effect on the behaviour of complex systems within cities.

The world’s population is expected to grow towards 10 billion in 2070; and most of that growth will be within cities. The physicist and biologist Geoffrey West’s work on cities as complex systems showed that larger, denser cities are more successful in creating wealth. That creation of wealth attracts more residents, causing further growth – and further consumption of resources. At some point it’s inevitable that this self-reinforcing growth triggers a crisis.

If this sounds alarmist, consider the level of civic unrest associated with the Eurozone crisis in Greece and Spain; or that in the 2000 strike by the drivers who deliver fuel to petrol stations in the UK, some city supermarkets came within hours of running out of food completely. Or simply look to the frightening global effects of recent grain shortages caused by drought in the US.

Concern over this combination of the cost of resources and uncertainty in their supply has lead to sustainability becoming a critical economic and social issue, not just a long-term environmental one. And it demands changes in the way that cities behave.

As an example of just how far-reaching this thinking has become, consider the supply of food to urban areas. Whilst definitions vary, urban areas are usually defined as continuously built-up areas with a population of at least a few thousand people, living at a density of at least a few hundred people per square kilometer. Actual population densities in large cities are much higher than this, typically a few tens of thousands per square kilometer in developed economies, and sometimes over one hundred thousand per square kilometer in the largest megacities in emerging economies.

In contrast, one square kilometer of intensively farmed land with fertile soil in a good climate can feed approximately 1000 people according to Kate Cooper of the New Optimists forum, which is considering scenarios for Birmingham’s food future in 2050. Those numbers tell us that, then unless some radical new method of growing food appears, cities will never feed themselves, and will continue to rely on importing food from ever larger areas of farmland to support their rising populations.

(Photo by TEDxBrainport of Dr Mark Post explaining how meat can be grown artificially)

As I’ve noted before, such radical new methods are already appearing: artificial meat has been grown in laboratories; and the idea of creating “vertical farms” in skyscrapers is being seriously explored.

But these are surely scientific and engineering challenges; so why do I refer to a philosophical imperative?

I’ve previously referred to artificial meat and vertical farming as examples of “extreme urbanism“. They certainly push the boundaries of our ability to manipulate the natural world. And that’s where the philosophical challenge lies.

Do we regard ourselves as creatures of nature, or as creatures who manipulate nature? To what extent do we want to change the character of the world from which we emerged? As the population of our planet and our cities continues to rise, we will have to confront these questions, and decide how to answer them.

Geoffrey West’s work clearly predicts what will happen if we continue our current course; and I think it is likely that scientists and engineers will rise to the challenge of supporting even larger, denser cities than those we currently have. But personally I don’t think the result will be a world that I will find attractive to live in.

Organisations such as Population Matters campaign carefully and reasonably for an alternative path; an agenda of education, access to opportunity and individual restraint in the size of our families as a means to slow the growth of global population, so that more orthodox solutions can be affective – such as increasing the efficiency of food distribution, reducing food wastage (including our personal food wastage) and changing dietary habits – for instance, to eat less meat.

I don’t claim to know the answer to these challenges, but I’m thankful that they are the subject of urgent research by serious thinkers. The challenge for cities is to understand and incorporate this thinking into their own strategies in ways that are realistic and practical, in order that their Smarter City programmes represent the first steps on the path to a sustainable future.

Should technology improve cities, or should cities improve technology?

(Photo of the Queens Arms in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter by Ian Edwards)

I was honoured this week to be invited to join the Academy of Urbanism, a society of professionals, academics and policy makers from a variety of backgrounds whose work is concerned in some way with cities. As a technology professional who has increasingly worked in an urban context over the past few years, I try to be as conscious of what I don’t know about cities as what I do; and I’m hoping that the Academy will offer me the opportunity to learn from its many expert members.

In fact, in a discussion today with an expert from the property development sector, I found myself reversing my usual direction of thinking concerning the relationship between technology and cities: when asked “how can technology contribute to improving property development” I replied that I was more interested in the question “how can property development improve technology?”.

I spend a lot of my time working both with City Councils and with the ecosystems of entrepreneurs and small businesses in cities; especially those businesses that create or use technology. Such businesses are – rightly, in my view – seen as the heart of a sustainable economy by many cities. They create innovate products and services in high value markets; they often operate in local networks of supply and demand that create self-reinforcing growth in the city economy; and they export products and services nationally and internationally.

Almost by definition these businesses create value in a way that is agile and closely linked to local market and cultural context; they are the antithesis of the sort of large-scale, process-driven, technology work that it is easy and cost-effective to describe in writing in order that its delivery can be commissioned from the lowest cost supplier internationally. These are amongst the reasons that the excellent Microsoft-sponsored “Developing the Future” report in 2007 cited this sector as key to growth in the UK economy.

It’s obvious that making office space and technology infrastructure such as broadband connectivity available to businesses of this sort is important; what’s less obvious is what else is required in order to create a successful, sustainable, growing cluster of such businesses with the capability to have a significant overall impact on a city economy.

Two aspects of that challenge that have been interesting me recently are: how do cities attract the young, skilled people who might start or work for such businesses? And: how can cities make themselves attractive places for those people to grow older, mature their business and professional skills, and start families?

Whilst I often write on this blog about my own work in the UK, I spoke at length with a colleague this week who is helping a fast-growing African city to contemplate these precise issues. In a single, global economy, they matter to cities everywhere.

By coincidence, the Urban Repairs Club visited the Jewellery Quarter in my home city of Birmingham this week. Their report of what they found is insightful and very relevant to this subject. I moved to Birmingham in 1990, just in time to annoy shoppers in the city’s old Bullring shopping centre by busking as a university student, before it was replaced by the new Bullring which revitalised the city’s retail centre. The Urban Repairs Club article well reflects both the changes for the better since that period; and the challenges that remain.

(Photo of machines from the industrial revolution in Birmingham’s Science Museum by Chris Moore)

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution; it is where the powered mass-manufacture of designed items (such as badges, coins, and belt buckles) was first invented, in between the creation of one-off objects of art and the mass production of undecorated functional items.

It retains that industrial heritage today in a way that is entirely uncontrived and that has not been “restored” or recreated as a homage to history. It contains green spaces; some of Birmingham’s most interesting restaurants and evening venues; and affordable housing. In many ways it reminds me of the comments made by London-based technology entrepreneurs in the recent Demos “Tale of Tech City” report describing what attracts them to Shoreditch – and what will not necessarily attract them to use the facilities of the Olympic legacy sites.

At the risk of entering into a controversial debate in my home city, one of its challenges is that the attractions of the Jewellery Quarter are less than ideally connected to some key economic areas in Birmingham, such as the technology incubation campus at Birmingham Science Park Aston; or the hearts of the digital media and creative sectors around Fazeley Studios and the Custard Factory. The Urban Repairs Club report discusses some of the features of Birmingham’s urban landscape that cause this separation: it is possible to walk between all of these areas, for example; but it is not pleasant to do so, and it is not a walk I would undertake on a dark autumn or winter evening with my family. That reluctance might arise more from my perception of the area’s character than its reality; but it’s on the basis of perception that such decisions are taken.

A colleague in Birmingham commented that the deficiencies of urban environments such as those highlighted by the Urban Repairs Club are often impacts of decisions in property development and transport that are driven by financial and economic outcomes and that don’t adequately recognise the importance of social mobility, social cohesion and sustainability.

Those comments reminded me of a passage in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, “Collapse“. In it, Diamond is concerned with the ways in which societies respond to environmental challenges that threaten their survival. As historic examples, he studies Easter Island and Norse Greenland, and in the present day he discusses the situations of Australia and the US State of Montana.

(Photo by Stefan of Himeji, Japan, showing the forest that covers much of Japan’s landmass enclosing – and enclosed by – the city)

In particular, his comments on Japan’s successful slowing of population growth and reversal of deforestation between the 17th and 19th Centuries struck me:

“… a suite of factors … caused both the elite and the masses in Japan to recognise their long-term stake in preserving their own forests, to a degree greater than for most other people.”

He goes on to say that those factors included the fact that the ruling Tokugawa shoguns:

“… having imposed peace and eliminated rival armies at home, correctly anticipated that they were at little risk of a revolt at home or an invasion from overseas. They expected their own Tokugawa family to remain in control of Japan, which in fact it did for 250 years.”

Unless I’m misreading the current political situation, 250 years of hereditary governance is not something that’s likely to happen in the UK; but there’s a hint of the modern-day expression of that stability of vested interest in the Urban Repair Club’s report. In it, they highlight that the property section of Birmingham’s newspaper, the Birmingham Post has the subtitle: “EdgbastonHarborneHerefordshireStaffordshireSolihullWarwickshireShropshireStourbridgeWorcestershire”; and that if these are the areas that Birmingham’s citizens are thought to aspire to live in, then it’s notable that only two of them (Edgbaston and Harborne) are in Birmingham; the others are mostly nearby market towns and the counties that surround them.

This is a typical consequence of the trend in the UK for those who are approaching middle-age, and becoming more experienced businesspeople and professionals, to leave cities as they also become parents; in the search for more space, better schools and a more peaceful lifestyle. Edward Glaesar referred to the same drive in “The Triumph of the City” and reflected that he himself had moved from a city centre to a suburb for precisely these reasons.

If we could counter that trend, we might help cities to address two challenges: the loss from the city-centre economy of some of their most important business talent (as highlighted in the Centre for Cities reports “Outlook for Cities 2012” and “Hidden potential: Supporting growth in Sunderland & other mid-sized cities“); and the development of longer-term relationships between people and place; particularly those people whose careers advance to the point that they are in the position to take the investment and property development decisions that shape our cities.

(Photo byC. Wess Daniels of Bournville, the urban village created by the long-standing relationship between the Cadbury family and the area of Birmingham in which their chocolate factory is located)

The Urban Repairs Club article suggests that some of the Corporations responsible for modern developments in Birmingham act in their own short-term financial interest, and not in the city’s interest. In contrast to this are the attitudes expressed recently by Sir Roger Carr, president of the Confederation of British Industry and chair of Centrica, the UK’s largest energy company; and Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. Recognising the reality that we live in a globalised world with a single capitalist economy, both Sir Roger and Professor Petriglieri are meditating on the opportunity for business to be a force for good; and on the importance of globally mobile leaders retaining a prolonged, local sense of place. I suspect that the truth is complex and consists of elements of all of these perspectives.

To return to Jared Diamond, in an analysis of the factors common to successful responses to environmental challenges, he comments:

“Leaders who don’t just react passively, who have the courage to anticipate crises or to act early, and who make strong insightful decisions of top-down management really can make a huge difference to their societies. So can similarly courageous, active citizens practicing bottom-up management.”

Achieving that balance will help cities such as Birmingham, and others across the world, to be successful in achieving many of their goals, including the creation of high-value, sustainable local economies – whether in the technology sector or elsewhere.

The relationships between sustainability and economy are many-faceted. Diamond comments that his analysis included examples in which:

“one society succeeded while one or more societies practising different economies in the same environment failed”

And that therefore:

“not only the environment, but also the proper choice of an economy to fit the environment, is important.”

Correspondingly, the right urban environment is needed to support the economy. Not just one in which the technology and transport infrastructure is available to support distribution, services and operations; but one that attracts people to live and work; and that provides both physical and social mobility for everyone. Those are challenges that in some ways technology can assist – through the provision of more complete, holistic information, for example – but they will not be solved by technology. They’ll be solved – I hope – by the combination of talent and disciplines represented in organisations such as the Academy of Urbanism; or that in some cases come together naturally in city communities to create enlightened “bottom-up” activism.

I’m hoping to learn much more about all of these possibilities as I get to know my fellow Academicians.

Why Open City Data is the Brownfield Regeneration Challenge of the Information Age

(Graphic of New York’s ethnic diversity from Eric Fischer)

I often use this blog to explore ways in which technology can add value to city systems. In this article, I’m going to dig more deeply into my own professional expertise: the engineering of the platforms that make technology reliably available.

Many cities are considering how they can create a city-wide information platform. The potential benefits are considerable: Dublin’s “Dublinked” platform, for example, has stimulated the creation of new high-technology businesses, and is used by scientific researchers to examine ways in which the city’s systems can operate more efficiently and sustainably. And the announcements today by San Francisco that they are legislating to promote open data and have appointed a “Chief Data Officer” for the city are sure to add to the momentum.

But if cities such as Dublin, San Francisco and Chicago have found such platforms so useful, why aren’t there more of them already?

To answer that question, I’d like to start by setting an expectation:

City information platforms are not “new” systems; they are a brownfield regeneration challenge for technology.

Just as urban regenerations need to take account of the existing physical infrastructures such as buildings, transport and utility networks; when thinking about new city technology solutions we need to consider the information infrastructure that is already in place.

A typical city authority has many hundreds of IT systems and applications that store and manage data about their city and region. Private sector organisations who operate services such as buses, trains and power, or who simply own and operate buildings, have similarly large and complex portfolios of applications and data.

So in every city there are thousands – probably tens of thousands – of applications and data sources containing relevant information. (The Dublinked platform was launched in October 2011 with over 3,000 data sets covering the environment, planning, water and transport, for example). Only a very small fraction of those systems will have been designed with the purpose of making information available to and usable by city stakeholders; and they certainly will not have been designed to do so in a joined-up, consistent way.

(A map of the IT systems of a typical organisation, and the interconnections between then)

The picture to the left is a reproduction of a map of the IT systems of a real organisation, and the connections between them. Each block in the diagram represents a major business application that manages data; each line represents a connection between two or more such systems. Some of these individual systems will have involved hundreds of person-years of development over decades of time. Engineering the connections between them will also have involved significant effort and expense.

Whilst most organisations improve the management of their systems over time and sometimes achieve significant simplifications, by and large this picture is typical of the vast majority of organisations today, including those that support the operation of cities.

In the rest of this article, I’ll explore some of the specific challenges for city data and open data that result from this complexity.

My intention is not to argue against bringing city information together and making it available to communities, businesses and researchers. As I’ve frequently argued on this blog, I believe that doing so is a fundamental enabler to transforming the way that cities work to meet the very real social, economic and environmental challenges facing us. But unless we take a realistic, informed approach and undertake the required engineering diligence, we will not be successful in that endeavour.

1. Which data is useful?

Amongst those thousands of data sets that contain information about cities, on which should we concentrate the effort required to make them widely available and usable?

That’s a very hard question to answer. We are seeking innovative change in city systems, which by definition is unpredictable.

One answer is to look at what’s worked elsewhere. For example, wherever information about transport has been made open, applications have sprung up to make that information available to travellers and other transport users in useful ways. In fact most information that describes the urban environment is likely to quickly prove useful; including maps, land use characterisation, planning applications, and the locations of shops, parks, public toilets and other facilities .

The other datasets that will prove useful are less predictable; but there’s a very simple way to discover them: ask. Ask local entrepreneurs what information they need to start new businesses. Ask existing businesses what information about the city would help them be more successful. Ask citizens and communities.

This is the approach we have followed in Sunderland, and more recently in Birmingham through the Smart City Commission and the recent “Smart Hack” weekend. The Dublinked information partnership in Dublin also engages in consultation with city communities and stakeholders to prioritise the datasets that are made available through the platform. The Knight Foundation’s “Information Needs of Communities” report is an excellent explanation of the importance of taking this approach.

2. What data is available?

How do we know what information is contained in those hundreds or thousands of data sets? Many individual organisations find it difficult to “know what they know”; across an entire city the challenge is much harder.

Arguably, that challenge is greatest for local authorities: whilst every organisation is different, as a rule of thumb private sector companies tend to need tens to low hundreds of business systems to manage their customers, suppliers, products, services and operations. Local authorities, obliged by law to deliver hundreds or even thousands of individual services, usually operate systems numbering in the high hundreds or low thousands. The process of discovering, cataloguing and characterising information systems is time-consuming and hence potentially expensive.

The key to resolving the dilemma is an open catalogue which allows this information to be crowdsourced. Anyone who knows of or discovers a data source that is available, or that could be made available, and whose existence and contents are not sensitive, can document it. Correspondingly, anyone who has a need for data that they cannot find or use can document that too. Over time, a picture of the information that describes a city, including what data is available and what is not, will build up. It will not be a complete picture – certainly not initially; but this is a practically achievable way to create useful information.

3. What is the data about?

The content of most data stores is organised by a “key” – a code that indicates the subject of each element of data. That “key” might be a person, a location or an organisation. Unfortunately, all of those things are very difficult to identify correctly and in a way that will be universally understood.

For example, do the following pieces of information refer to the same people, places and organisations?

“Mr. John Jones, Davis and Smith Delicatessen, Harbourne, Birmingham”
“J A Jones, Davies and Smythe, Harborne, B17”
“The Manager, David and Smith Caterers, Birmingham B17”
“Mr. John A and Mrs Jane Elizabeth Jones, 14 Woodhill Crescent, Northfield, Birmingham”

This information is typical of what might be stored in a set of IT systems managing such city information as business rates, citizen information, and supplier details. As human beings we can guess that a Mr. John A Jones lives in Northfield with his wife Mrs. Jane Elizabeth Jones; and that he is the manager of a delicatessen called “Davis and Smith” in Harborne which offers catering services. But to derive that information we have had to interpret several different ways of writing the names of people and businesses; tolerate mistakes in spelling; and tolerate different semantic interpretations of the same entity (is “Davis and Smith” a “Delicatessen” or a “Caterer”? The answer depends on who is asking the question).

(Two views of Exhibition Road in London, which can be freely used by pedestrians, for driving and for parking; the top photograph is by Dave Patten. How should this area be classified? As a road, a car park, a bus-stop, a pavement, a park – or something else? My colleague Gary looks confused by the question in the bottom photograph!)

All of these challenges occur throughout the information stored in IT systems. Some technologies – such as “single view” – exist that are very good at matching the different formats of names, locations and other common pieces of information. In other cases, information that is stored in “codes” – such as “LHR” for “London Heathrow” and “BHX” for “Birmingham International Airport” can be decoded using a glossary or reference data.

Translating semantic meanings is more difficult. For example, is the A45 from Birmingham to Coventry a road that is useful for travelling between the two cities? Or a barrier that makes it difficult to walk from homes on one side of the road to shops on the other? In time semantic models of cities will develop to systematically reconcile such questions, but until they do, human intelligence and interpretation will be required.

4. Sometimes you don’t want to know what the data is about

Sometimes, as soon as you know what something is about, you need to forget that you know. I led a project last year that applied analytic technology to derive new insights from healthcare data. Such data is most useful when information from a variety of sources that relate to the same patient is aggregated together; to do that, the sort of matching I’ve just described is needed. But patient data is sensitive, of course; and in such scenarios patients’ identities should not be apparent to those using the data.

Techniques such as anonymisation and aggregation can be applied to address this requirement; but they need to be applied carefully in order to retain the value of data whilst ensuring that identities and other sensitive information are not inadvertently exposed.

For example, the following information contains an anonymised name and very little address information; but should still be enough for you to determine the identity of the subject:

Subject: 00764
Name: XY67 HHJK6UB
Address: SW1A
Profession: Leader of a political party

(Please submit your answers to me at @dr_rick on Twitter!)

This is a contrived example, but the risk is very real. I live on a road with about 100 houses. I know of one profession to which only two people who live on the road belong. One is a man and one is a woman. It would be very easy for me to identify them based on data which is “anonymised” naively. These issues become very, very serious when you consider that within the datasets we are considering there will be information that can reveal the home address of people who are now living separately from previously abusive partners, for example.

5. Data can be difficult to use

(How the OECD identified the “Top 250 ICT companies” in 2006)

There are many, many reasons why data can be difficult to use. Data contained within a table within a formatted report document is not much use to a programmer. A description of the location of a disabled toilet in a shop can only be used by someone who understands the language it is written in. Even clearly presented numerical values may be associated with complex caveats and conditions or expressed in quantities specific to particular domains of expertise.

For example, the following quote from a 2006 report on the global technology industry is only partly explained by the text box shown in the image on the left:

“In 2005, the top 250 ICT firms had total revenues of USD 3 000 billion”.

(Source: “Information Technology Outlook 2006“, OECD)

Technology can address some of these issues: it can extract information from written reports; transform information between formats; create structured information from written text; and even, to a degree, perform automatic translation between languages. But doing all of that requires effort; and in some cases human expertise will always be required.

In order for city information platforms to be truly useful to city communities, then some thought also needs to be given for how those communities will be offered support to understand and use that information.

6. Can I trust the data?

Several British banks have recently been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for falsely reporting the interest rates at which they are able to borrow money. This information, the “London InterBank Offered Rate” (LIBOR) is an example of open data. The Banks who have been fined were found to have under-reported the interest rate at which they were able to borrow – this made them appear more creditworthy than they actually were.

Such deliberate manipulation is just one of the many reasons we may have to doubt information. Who creates information? How qualified are they to provide accurate information? Who assesses that qualification and tests the accuracy of the information?

For example, every sensor which measures physical information incorporates some element of uncertainty and error. Location information derived from Smartphones is usually accurate to within a few meters when derived from GPS data; but only a few hundred meters when derived by triangulation between mobile transmission masts. That level of inaccuracy is tolerable if you want to know which city you are in; but not if you need to know where the nearest cashpoint is. (Taken to its extreme, this argument has its roots in “Noise Theory“, the behaviour of stochastic processes and ultimately Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Mechanics. Sometimes it’s useful to be a Physicist!).

Information also goes out of date very quickly. If roadworks are started at a busy intersection, how does that affect the route-calculation services that many of us depend on to identify the quickest way to get from one place to another? When such roadworks make bus stops inaccessible so that temporary stops are erected in their place, how is that information captured? In fact, this information is often not captured; and as a result, many city transport authorities do not know where all of their bus stops are currently located.

I have barely touched in this section on an enormously rich and complex subject. Suffice to say that determining the “trustability” of information in the broadest sense is an immense challenge.

7. Data is easy to lose

(A computer information failure in Las Vegas photographed by Dave Herholz)

Whenever you find that an office, hotel room, hospital appointment or seat on a train that you’ve reserved is double-booked you’ve experienced lost data. Someone made a reservation for you in a computer system; that data was lost; and so the same reservation was made available to someone else.

Some of the world’s most sophisticated and well-managed information systems lose data on occasion. That’s why we’re all familiar with it happening to us.

If cities are to offer information platforms that local people, communities and businesses come to depend on, then we need to accept that providing reliable information comes at a cost. This is one of the many reasons that I have argued in the past that “open data” is not the same thing as “free data”. If we want to build a profitable business model that relies on the availability of data, then we should expect to pay for the reliable supply of that data.

A Brownfield Regeneration for the Information Age

So if this is all so hard, should we simply give up?

Of course not; I don’t think so, anyway. In this article, I have described some very significant challenges that affect our ability to make city information openly available to those who may be able to use it. But we do not need to overcome all of those challenges at once.

Just as the physical regeneration of a city can be carried out as an evolution in dialogue and partnership with communities, as happened in Vancouver as part of the “Carbon Talks” programme, so can “information regeneration”. Engaging in such a dialogue yields insight into the innovations that are possible now; who will create them; what information and data they need to do so; and what social, environmental and financial value will be created as a result.

That last part is crucial. The financial value that results from such “Smarter City” innovations might not be our primary objective in this context – we are more likely to be concerned with economic, social and environmental outcomes; but it is precisely what is needed to support the financial investment required to overcome the challenges I have discussed in this article.

On a final note, it is obviously the case that I am employed by a company, IBM, which provides products and services that address those challenges. I hope that you have noticed that I have not mentioned a single one of those products or services by name in this article, nor provided any links to them. And whilst IBM are involved in some of the cities that I have mentioned, we are not involved in all of them.

I have written this article as a stakeholder in our cities – I live in one – and as an engineer; not as a salesman. I am absolutely convinced that making city information more widely available and usable is crucial to addressing what Professor Geoffrey West described as “the greatest challenges that the planet has faced since humans became social“. As a professional engineer of information systems I believe that we must be fully cognisant of the work involved in doing so properly; and as a practical optimist, I believe that it is possible to do so in affordable, manageable steps that create real value and the opportunity to change our cities for the better. I hope that I have managed to persuade you to agree.

The new architecture of Smart Cities

(Photo of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing by Trey Ratcliff)

I’ve been preparing this week for the next stage of work on Birmingham’s Smart City Commission; our task on the Commission is to develop a strategic vision for Birmingham as a Smart City and a roadmap for achieving it.

In doing so I’ve been considering an interesting and important question:

What makes a city a “Smart City” as opposed to a city where some “smart things” happen?

Three obvious criteria for answering that question stand out:

1. Smart Cities are led from the top – they have a strong and visionary leader championing the Smart agenda across the city. The Mayors of Rio and Barcelona are famously showing such leadership; and in the UK, so too are, amongst others, Dave Smith, CEO of Sunderland City Council, and Sir Albert Bore, Birmingham’s elected Council Leader, and a founder of the Eurocities movement.

2. Smart Cities have a stakeholder forum – they have drawn together a community of city stakeholders across the city. Those stakeholders have not only created a compelling vision for a Smart City; they have committed to taking an ongoing role coordinating a programme to deliver it. This is the challenge we have been given in Birmingham’s Smart City Commission; and I’ve previously written about how such a responsibility could be carried out.

3. Smart Cities invest in technology infrastructure – they are deploying the required information and communication technology (ICT) platforms across the city; and doing so in such a way as to support the integration of information and activity across city systems. (There are, of course, many other infrastructures that are important to the future of cities; but in “Smart Cities” we are particularly concerned with the role of technology, as I argued in a recent article on this blog).

It’s also important, though, to consider what is different about the structure and organisation of city systems in a Smart City. How does a city such as Birmingham decide which technology infrastructures are required? Which organisations will make use of them, and how? How can they be designed and delivered so that they effectively serve individuals, communities and businesses in the city? What other structures and processes are required to achieve this progress in a Smart City?

Designing Smart Cities

In order to design the infrastructures and systems of Smart Cities well, we need to design them in context – that is, with an understanding of the environment in which they will exist, and the other elements of that environment with which they will interact.

The figure below – “Components of a Smart City Architecture” – is one way of describing the context for Smart City systems and infrastructures. It contains six layers which I’ll discuss further below: “Goals”; “People”; “Ecosystem”; “Soft Infrastructures”; “City Systems” and “Hard Infrastructures”.

(I’m very aware that this diagram is not a particularly good visual representation of a Smart City, by the way. It doesn’t emphasise the centricity of people, for example, and it is not aesthetically pleasing. I’m simply using it as a conceptual map at this stage. I welcome any suggestions for re-casting and improving it!)

(Components of a Smart City architecture)

Goals, People and Ecosystem

Every Smart City initiative is based on a set of goals; often they focus on sustainability, inclusivity and the creation of social and economic growth. Boyd Cohen, who writes frequently on the subject of Smart Cities for Fast Company, published an excellent article surveying and analysing the goals that cities have expressed in their Smart initiatives and providing a model for considering them.

Ultimately, such goals will only be achieved through a Smart City strategy if that strategy results in changes to city systems and infrastructures that make a difference to individuals within the city – whether they are residents, workers or visitors. The art of user-centric, or citizen-centric, service design is a rich subject in its own right, and I don’t intend to address it directly here. However, I am very much concerned with the wider context within which that design takes place, and in particular the role that communities play.

I do not believe that a Smart City strategy that concerns itself only with citizens, city systems and hard infrastructures will result in citizen-centric design; it is only be co-creating soft infrastructures with city communities that such an approach can be systematically encouraged across a city.

In “How Smarter Cities Get Started” I wrote some time ago about the importance of engaging city communities in identifying the goals of Smart City initiatives and setting out the strategy to achieve them. I’ve also written previously about the importance of designing Smart City infrastructures so that they enable innovation within city communities.

Communities are living, breathing manifestations of city life, of course, not structures to be engineered. They are vital elements of the city’s ecosystem: they provide support; they are expressions of social life; they represent shared interests and capabilities; and they can play a role communicating between city institutions and individual citizens. They include families and social networks; neighbourhood, cultural and faith groups; charities and the voluntary sector; public sector organisations such as Schools and Universities, in addition to local government; and private sector organisations such as service providers, retailers and employers.

The challenge for the architects and designers of Smart Cities is to create infrastructures and services that can become part of the fabric and life of this ecosystem of communities and people. To do so effectively is to engage in a process of co-creative dialogue with them.

Soft Infrastructures

In the process of understanding how communities and individuals might interact with and experience a Smart City, elements of “soft infrastructure” are created – in the first place, conversations and trust. If the process of conversations is continued and takes place broadly, then that process and the city’s communities can become part of a Smart City’s soft infrastructure.

A variety of soft infrastructures play a vital role in the Smart City agenda, from the stakeholder forum that creates and carries out a Smart City strategy; to the “hackdays” and competitions that make Open Data initiatives successful; to neighbourhood planning dialogues such as that conducted in Vancouver as part of the “Carbon Talks” programme. They also include the organisations and interest groups who support city communities – such as Sustainable Enterprise Strategies in Sunderland who provide support to small businesses and social enterprises in the city’s most deprived communities or the Social Media Cafe in Birmingham which brings together citizens from all walks of life who are interested in creating community value online.

Some soft infrastructural elements are more formal. For example, governance processes for measuring both overall progress and the performance of individual city systems against Smart City objectives; frameworks for procurement criteria that encourage and enable individual buying decisions across the city to contribute towards Smart City goals; and standards and principles for integration and interoperability across city systems. All of these are elements of a Smart City architecture that any Smart City strategy should seek to put in place.

(Photo of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex from Space by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

City systems

Whilst individual city systems are not my focus in this article, they are clearly significant elements of the Smart City context. In a previous article I discussed how the optimisation of such systems as energy, water and transportation can contribute significantly to Smarter City objectives.

More importantly, these systems literally provide life support for cities – they feed, transport, educate and provide healthcare for citizens as well as supporting communities and businesses. So we must treat them with real respect.

A key element of any design process is taking into account those factors that act as constraints on the designer. Existing city systems are a rich source of constraints for Smart City design: their physical infrastructures may be decades old and expensive or impossible to extend; and their operation is often contracted to service providers and subject to strict performance criteria. These constraints – unless they can be changed – play a major role in shaping a Smart City strategy.

Hard Infrastructures

The field of Smart Cities originated in the possibilities that new technology platforms offer to transform city systems. Those platforms include networks such as 4G and broadband; communication tools such as telephony, social media and video conferencing; computational resources such as Cloud Computing; information repositories to support Open Data or Urban Observatories; and analytic and modelling tools that can provide deep insight into the behaviour of city systems.

These technology platforms are not exempt from the principles I’ve described in this article: to be effective, they need to be designed in context. By engaging with city ecosystems and the organizations, communities and individuals in them to properly understand their needs, challenges and opportunities, technology platforms can be designed to support them.

I’ve made an analogy before between technology platforms and urban highways. It’s much harder to design an urban highway in a way that supports and enables the communities it passes through, than it is to simply design one that allows traffic to get from one place to another – and that in overlooking those communities, runs the risk of physically cutting them apart.

Technology platforms rarely have such directly adverse effects – though when badly mis-applied, they can do. However, it is certainly possible to design them poorly, so that they do not deliver value, or are simply left unused. These outcomes are most likely when the design process is insular; by contrast, the process of co-creating the design of a Smart City technology infrastructure with the communities of a city can even result in the creation of a portfolio of technology-enabled city services with the potential to generate revenue. Those future revenues in return support the case for making an investment in the platform in the first place.

And some common patterns are emerging in the technology capabilities that can provide value in city communities. I’ve referred to these before as the “innovation boundary” of a city. They include the basic connectivity that provides access to information systems; digital marketplace platforms that can support new business models; and local currencies that reinforce regional economic synergies.

These technology capabilities operate within the physical context of a city: its buildings, spaces, and the networks that support transport and utilities. The Demos report on the “Tech City” cluster of technology start-up businesses in London offers an interesting commentary on the needs of a community of entrepreneurs – needs that span those domains. They include: access to technology, the ability to attract venture capital investment, office space from which to run their businesses; and proximity to the food, retail, accommodation and entertainment facilities that make the area attractive to the talented professionals they need to hire.

In a recent conversation, Tim Stonor, Managing Director of Space Syntax, offered this commentary on a presentation given by UN Habitat Director General Joan Clos at the “Urban Planning for City Leaders” conference last week:

“The place to start is with the street network. Without this you can’t lay pipes, or run trams. It’s the foundations of urbanism and, without foundations, you’re building on sand. Yes, we can have subways that cut across/beneath the street network, and data packets that travel through the airwaves over the tops of buildings, but if these aren’t serving human interactions in effectively laid out street networks, then they are to little avail.”

Tim’s point on human interactions, I think, brings us nicely back full circle to thinking again about people and the relationships between them. Tim’s further comments on the presentation can be found on Storify.

A New Architecture?

At some point in the process of writing this article, I realised I had strayed onto provocative ground – this, perhaps, is why it’s taken me longer than usual to write.

As you can see, my job title contains the word “architect”. Strictly, I’m an Information Technology Architect, or “IT Architect” – I’ve spent my career “architecting” IT solutions such as e-commerce sites, mobile web apps, analytics systems and so on. Most recently I’ve been working in that capacity with Sunderland on their City Cloud.

I’m very aware that a strong view exists amongst Architects who create buildings and plan cities that IT professionals shouldn’t be describing ourselves in this way. Indeed, some (although I’d say a minority) of my colleagues agree, and call themselves designers or engineers instead.

Personally, I feel comfortable referring to my work as “architecture”. Many “IT solutions” – or more broadly, “IT-enabled business solutions” – are complex socio-technical systems. They are complex in an engineering sense, often extremely so; but they incorporate financial, social, operational, psychological and artistic components too; and they are designed in the context of the human, social, business, political and physical environments in which they will be used.

(Entrance to the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, New York, photographed by Lambert Wolterbeek Muller)

So when we are designing a technology solution in a Smart City context – or indeed in any physical context – we are concerned with physical space; with transport networks; with city systems; and with human interactions. All of these are related to the more obvious concerns of information technology such as user interfaces, software applications, data stores, network infrastructure, data centres, laptops and workstations, wi-fi routers and mobile connectivity.

It seems to me that whilst the responsibilities and skills of “IT Architects” and Architects are not the same, they are applied within the same context, and cannot be separated from each other in that context. So in Smart Cities we should not treat “architecture” and “IT architecture” as separable activities.

In “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, a work which laid the groundwork for his invention of the “design patterns” now widely adopted by IT professionals, the town planner Christopher Alexander remarked of architecture:

At the same time that problems increase in quantity, complexity and difficulty, they also change faster than before. New materials are developed all the time, social patterns alter quickly, the culture itself is changing faster than it has ever changed before.”

– Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Harvard University Press, 1964

What else are the technologies incorporated in Smart City solutions but these “new materials” from which Architects can construct cities and buildings?

At the very least, it is inarguably the case that technologies such as the internet, social media and smartphones are intimately related to the significant changes taking place today in our culture and social patterns.

I’ve blogged many times about the emerging technologies that are making ever more sophisticated and intimate connections between the IT world and the physical world – in particular, in the article “Four avatars of the metropolis: technologies that will change our cities“. The new proximity of those two worlds is what has led to the “Smart Cities” movement; in a way it’s simply another example of the disruptions of industries such as publishing and music that we’ve seen caused by the internet. And if these two worlds are merging, then perhaps our professions need at least to work more closely together.

Already we’re seeing evidence of the need to do so: many city leaders and urbanists I’ve spoken to have described the problems caused by the separation of economic and spatial strategies in cities; or of the need for a better evidence-base for planning and decision making – such as the one that IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge team in Birmingham are helping the City Council to create. In response, we are starting to see technology experts taking part in some city and regional master-planning exercises.

Over the last few years this convergence of technology concerns with the many disciplines within urbanism has given me the opportunity to work with individuals from professions I would never previously have interacted with. It has been an honour and a pleasure to do so.

In a similar vein, I have quite deliberately posted links to this article in communities with wide and varied membership, and that I hope will include people who will disagree with me – perhaps strongly – and be kind enough to share their thoughts.

I’d like to thank the following people for their contributions in various discussions that have shaped this article:

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